5 minutes with... The Junkunc jade dragon head

Specialist Ling’ao Tong admires one of the two largest known Tang jade carvings, which is offered in New York in September

Jade artefacts from the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) are among the rarest from China’s millennia-long tradition of jade carving, explains Ling’ao Tong, an associate specialist in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department at Christie’s in New York. And those that do come to auction, he says, are usually small, two-dimensional personal ornaments such as belt plaques, pendants and hair ornaments.


An exceptionally rare and highly important pale greyish-green jade carving of a dragon head, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). 6½ in (16.5 cm) long. Estimate $2,500,000-3,500,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13 September at Christie’s in New York

An exceptionally rare and highly important pale greyish-green jade carving of a dragon head, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). 6½ in (16.5 cm) long. Estimate: $2,500,000-3,500,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13 September at Christie’s in New York

During the Tang dynasty in China, the supply of jade was strictly regulated and reserved for only the most influential and powerful individuals of society. ‘Jade has always been highly valued in China,’ says Ling’ao. ‘It is to the Chinese what gold is to Westerners.’

It is a stone that symbolises both the spiritual concept of immortality and the steadfast moral precepts of Confucianism. ‘This explains why emperors largely reserved this precious material for their own personal use,’ the specialist explains. 

The head boasts a snarled grin baring sharp teeth, a pointed, upturned muzzle that pushes back against large round nostrils, thickly furrowed brows over the eyes, and a backswept mane that ends in tight curls. The carving is bold, vigorous and expressive — characteristics which are associated with Tang dynasty imperial power.

The perforations on the dragons head suggest that it would have been mounted on a pole, perhaps one that was part of an imperial chariot or sedan

The perforations on the dragon's head suggest that it would have been mounted on a pole, perhaps one that was part of an imperial chariot or sedan

‘Its potent subject and luxurious material make it an embodiment of imperial magnificence of the highest order,’ Ling’ao explains. ‘And its large size suggests that it was definitely made to be seen from a distance.’

So what was it used for? The drilled perforations visible on the Junkunc dragon head and the carved trough underneath it suggest that it originally served as a decorative ornament. It is likely to have been mounted onto the wooden pole of an imperial chariot or sedan.

The Old Tang History (compiled between AD 941-945) records that imperial carriages decorated with jades were reserved for the most important state ceremonies, such as ritual worship and the coronation of the empress. It is possible that this jade dragon head was made for the Emperor Xuanzong — who reigned from AD 712 to 756 — at the height of his power.

‘This is the only Tang-dynasty imperial jade dragon head in private hands’ — Ling’ao Tong

The only other known example of a Tang-dynasty jade dragon head was found in 1980 at Qujiang, the site of the imperial pleasure park in the ancient Tang capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an). The Qujiang dragon head is now in the Xi’an Museum in Shaanxi Province.

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‘The Qujiang dragon head is the only other surviving Tang-dynasty jade dragon head that is comparable to ours in subject matter, size, sculptural strength and material,’ explains Ling’ao. ‘The similarities between the two pieces reinforce a Tang-dynasty date and imperial connection for the Junkunc jade dragon head.’

This pale greyish-green jade dragon head comes to auction at Christie’s in New York from the famed Asian art collection of Stephen Junkunc, III. It was published in 1963, but has not been seen in public since. After nearly six decades, this extraordinary carving is now coming to light for a fresh generation of scholars and collectors. 

And the market? ‘This is a huge, high-quality block of jade which is on the whiter end of the colour spectrum,’ states the specialist. ‘That it is the only Tang-dynasty jade dragon head in private hands will make it extremely attractive to collectors of early Chinese jade, as well as to cross-category collectors who are interested in acquiring a masterpiece.’